CAROL STREAM – Albert Pioch was searching for a way to give back to his community when he called the Wayne Township Pantry six years ago.
With the help of the pantry and a few enthusiastic community members, the Carol Stream resident founded Neighbors Helping Neighbors (NHN), a group of volunteers who fund and organize one of the largest food distribution events in the area.
In recognition of National Hunger Awareness month, the group has held the event every September for the past six years.
On Sept. 14, NHN’s group of more than 60 volunteers hosted the drive in the parking lot of the Wayne Township offices in West Chicago.
Jaunita Martinez, director of Wayne Township’s general assistance office and food pantry, estimated a total of 107 families, or about 461 individuals, left the food drive this year with grocery carts, each containing about 200 pounds of food and other household goods. Last year, Martinez said the event served about 650 people.
“There is nothing left over. Everything goes to the families,” she said.
Martinez said the group has raised $750 every year to fund the delivery of between 6,000 and 10,000 pounds of food by the Northern Illinois Food Bank’s Mobile Pantry.
After the first event, Pioch said his group of volunteers “realized right away there was so much more we could do.”
In addition to the funds raised for the mobile pantry, which delivers only food items, Pioch said the group has collected money during the past few years to pay for over-the-counter medicine, toiletries, paper products and similar household items.
This year, the group spent more than $700 on nonfood items, much of which was bought from the Northern Illinois Food Bank, he said.
A few years ago, Pioch said the families involved in NHN also began donating stuffed animals and toys to children waiting in line at the event. He said it calmed and entertained the children, who often had to wait for several hours alongside their families.
The event is offered to people who have gone to the Wayne Township general assistance office and food pantry for help, Martinez said. Many of the families are enrolled in the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The office hosts a monthly food pantry, but Martinez said it supplies families with only five to seven days worth of food.
The addition of the NHN event “allows our families to have additional products and doesn’t cost us anything,” she said.
Although politicians and others have criticized food stamp programs and the people they serve, Pioch said the families NHN helps are not looking for handouts.
“Every year we do this food pantry we have people who come through the line for assistance who we know and who live in our neighborhood,” Pioch said.
Although he is the founder of the annual event, Pioch said “the volunteers are truly the heart and soul of this.” He said the majority of volunteers live in the Carol Stream area.
NHN won’t disappear anytime soon. Pioch said he plans to organize and fundraise as he can.
He hopes the group will inspire others to start their own volunteer projects.
“It just takes a little bit of determination and a little bit of your time,” he said. “And it’s almost selfish. When everything is done, you feel so good you’ve helped so many people.”